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  • Writer's pictureGordon Sheach

World Cup Playoff Q&A

After extending our winning run to four with wins over Israel and the Faroe Islands, Steve Clarke’s Scotland side sit on the brink of reaching the Playoffs for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

With interest in the Playoffs spiking, we’ve seen similar questions arise from the Tartan Army. How do the Playoffs work, who could we play and how close are we to returning to the grandest stage of them all?

This article will seek to provide clear, concise answers to all questions you may have on the Playoffs!

How do Scotland make the Playoffs?

With two games to go, Scotland sit 2nd in World Cup Qualifying Group F, four points clear of nearest challengers Israel. Scotland must finish 2nd in the group to reach the Playoffs.

On MD9, Scotland travel to Moldova while Israel visit Austria. Here’s how we can secure the Playoff

Scotland win = Playoff Secured

Scotland draw + Israel draw/loss = Playoff secured

Scotland loss + Israel loss = Playoff secured

Scotland draw/loss + Israel win = Scotland would need to take something v Denmark on MD10 while Israel welcome the Faroes

Would this be a big achievement?

In a word, yes. Massive.

Scotland’s men haven’t finished 2nd in a qualifying group since Euro 2004 (less said about those Playoffs the better).

Wehaven’t finished 2nd in a World Cup qualifying group since 1998 (which resulted in automatic qualification as the best performing runner-up).

They haven’t competed in a Playoff for a World Cup since a two-leg victory over Australia in 1985 sent Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to Mexico ’86.

So yes, you can’t talk down how big an achievement it would be for a Scotland men’s team to be competitive over an entire qualifying campaign, enough to claim the runners up spot.

When are the Playoffs and how do they work?

Remember the Playoffs for Euro 2020? The single-leg Semi Final v Israel before the single-leg Playoff Final v Serbia?

It’s basically that again. The key difference is the Playoffs would be held over the same international break in March 2022, not split across two months as the Euros Playoffs were.

Twelve teams will enter the Playoffs (the 10 group runners-up, joined by the 2 best ranked Nations League group winners from last year who haven’t finished top two in their groups).

When the draw is made on Friday 26 November, we’ll know

A) Who we’re playing in the Semi Final

B) Which other Semi-Finalists we could play in the Final (for Euro 2020 it was the winner of Norway v Serbia) and

C) Who will host the Semi-Final & Final (seeding will determine Semi-Final venue, random draw will determine Final host – see seeding later).

Who could we play?

This is where things get more complicated because so much can and will change between now and the end of MD10.

At the end of MD10, all group runners-up will be placed in a league table against each other. In six-team groups (like ours), results vs the team finishing bottom are discounted (Moldova as it stands).

The top 6 teams are seeded, the bottom 4 teams are un-seeded. The teams joining the Playoffs from the Nations League are un-seeded.

Here’s the current Playoff Picture.

What are the benefits of being seeded?

Being seeded means;

A) We’d avoid some of the stronger teams in the draw in the Semi-Final (although likely end up playing a seeded team in the Final).

B) We’d be guaranteed to host the Semi-Final at Hampden. We saw against Israel the difference a sold-out crowd can make.

What do we need to be seeded?

Again, things get more complicated because a lot will change over MD9 & 10.

Let’s assess where we can stand in the runners-up ranking. As a reminder, in six-team groups (like ours), results vs the team finishing bottom are discounted (Moldova as it stands).

Group F – Scotland currently have 17pts = 14pts (when the win v Moldova is discounted). Our final two games are Moldova (A) which won’t add to our tally and Denmark (H). This means the maximum we can finish on is 17pts (with a win v Denmark) and the minimum is 14pts (with a loss to Denmark). A draw v Denmark finishes us on 15pts.

To be seeded, we need to finish ahead of the runners-up in four other groups – let’s check in on the groups.

Group A – 5 team group

Serbia (17) lead from Portugal (16). Portugal have a game in hand in MD9 and host Serbia on MD10. If Portugal beat Ireland (A) and Serbia (H) then 2nd place would finish on 17pts.

Scotland would therefore need to beat Denmark and finish ahead of Serbia on goal difference.

Group B – 5 team group

Sweden (15) lead Spain (13). Sweden have Georgia (A) then Spain (A) in November, making it likely they’ll drop to 2nd. If Sweden beat Georgia on MD9 then their tally of 18pts would be beyond us.

Scotland would need to beat Denmark on MD10 & for Sweden to take 1pt from Georgia & Spain to finish ahead.

Group C – 5 team group

Italy (14) and Switzerland (14) are deadlocked at the top of Group C. Italy host Switzerland on MD9, then travel to Northern Ireland which puts them in pole position to win the group. Should Switzerland lose to Italy then beat Bulgaria, they’ll finish 2nd on 17pts.

Meaning Scotland would therefore need to beat Denmark and finish ahead of Switzerland on goal difference.

Group D – 5 team group

France (12) lead from Ukraine (9), Finland (8) & Bosnia (7). Ukraine have one game remaining, Bosnia (A), meaning they can finish on 12. Finland have Bosnia (A) & France (H) placing their highest at 14 while Bosnia host Finland & Ukraine, putting their maximum at 13pts.

Scotland likely already have enough to finish ahead of this group so long as goal difference favours us.

Group E – 5 team group

Czech Republic (11) and Wales (11) are fighting it out for the Playoff space. The Czechs have one game left v Estonia (H) while Wales host Belarus and Belgium. It’s likely the team in 2nd finishes on 14pts, same as Scotland have now.

Scotland likely already have enough to finish ahead of this group so long as goal difference favours us.

Group F - This is our group (covered above)

Group G – 6 team group (discounting results v Gibraltar)

This is a complicated group. Norway (17) and Turkey (15) are fighting it out behind the Netherlands (19) to decide the outcome of this group. It isn’t clear which team will win the group or finish 2nd.

Netherlands – finish with Montenegro (A) & Norway (H)

Norway – have Latvia (H) and Netherlands (A)

Turkey – have Gibraltar (H) and Montenegro (A)

If Netherlands win out, the maximum Norway can finish on is 20, opening the door to Turkey if they can win out. When results v Gibraltar are discounted, the teams are currently on Netherlands (13), Turkey (12) and Norway (11). It is likely 2nd finishes on 14-15.

Scotland would likely need a draw v Denmark to finish ahead of this group.

Group H – 6 team group (discounting results v Cyprus)

Russia (19) lead from Croatia (17). Croatia welcome Russia on the final day to decide the group. Should Russia beat Cyprus (H) then lose to Croatia (A), they would enter the Playoffs with 16pts after two wins v Cyprus are discounted.

Meaning Scotland would therefore need to beat Denmark to finish ahead of this group.

Group I – 6 team group (discounting results v San Marino)

Poland (11 – when 6pts v San Marino are discounted) look assured of second. They play Andorra (A) & Hungary (H). Winning those two would see them enter the Playoffs on 17pts.

Scotland would therefore need to beat Denmark and finish ahead of Poland on goal difference.

Group J – 6 team group (discounting results v Liechtenstein)

The group currently looks like Romania (13), North Macedonia (12) and Armenia (12) fighting for position behind Germany (21).

After discounting results v Liechtenstein, the group looks like Romania (10), Armenia (8) and North Macedonia (6). Looking at the final two results, it looks like the runners up will finish on 12-13pts.

Scotland likely already have enough to finish ahead of this group

In summary – Scotland with 14pts likely have enough to be seeded ahead of Groups D, E and J – meaning we would only have to finish ahead of one more group to be seeded.

A draw or win v Denmark would be needed.

Are any players risking suspension for the Playoffs?

Unfortunately yes. The disciplinary rules in this qualifying campaign are strict, with two yellow cards accumulated over the campaign receiving a one-game ban. Grant Hanley missed the win over Israel for this reason and Ryan Christie and Lyndon Dykes will be unavailable for the trip to Moldova.

Currently one yellow card away from a ban are: Jack Hendry, Stephen O'Donnell, Andy Robertson, Nathan Patterson, John McGinn, Billy Gilmour, Kevin Nisbet and Che Adams.

The bad news is this carries into the Playoffs. This could put Scotland in something of a lose-lose scenario. If players are booked in Moldova, they would serve their suspension while Denmark visit - making it tougher for us to beat Denmark and be seeded for the Playoffs.

On the flip-side, players picking up a booking v Denmark would then miss the Playoff Semi-Final, impacting our chances of winning that one.

Will this boost our chances of reaching Euro 2024?

Unfortunately not, seedings for Euro 2024 qualifying will be determined by how we perform in the next Nations League.

The next Nations League groups will be drawn on 16 December 2021 with matches being held in June & September 2022.

1 Comment

Oct 22, 2021

A very well put together piece which explains and confirms my own thoughts. Slainth.

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